Trying to play the “guess the number of wins” game always burns me: my unrelenting optimism and homerisms take over and I always predict more wins than losses. It’s hard not to! This time of year, it’s not hard to envision the best of what this team can be, rather than settle for what this team has the best odds of being.
When you examine the league’s strength of schedule rankings, you might feel a lot better about the Falcons this year than the last. In 2020, the team was tied for fifth with having one of the hardest-to-navigate schedules out there. Of the 11 teams said to have the hardest schedule last year, only two — the Rams and the Bills — made the playoffs. The Super Bowl-winning Buccaneers were tied right in the middle at 16th.
In 2021, the Falcons are taking advantage of their fourth-place finish in the NFC South and are playing only the 30th hardest schedule in the NFL. This means that their schedule isn’t filled with supposed Super Bowl contenders, though this can be deceiving when you consider why 2020 teams had the record they had and what they did in the offseason to rectify that.
For example, the San Francisco 49ers were a 6-10 team last year, which makes it not weigh as heavily on the Falcons’ schedule. That team missed Jimmy Garoppolo for a good chunk of the year with his ankle injury, so a healthy Jimmy G could make this a much tougher opponent, or the team might hand the keys over to dynamic rookie Trey Lance. They’re unlikely to be terrible again.
We also have no idea how good a team like Philadelphia will be with new coaching and a new starter in Jalen Hurts; ditto what the Washington Football Team will look like with Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Jaguars with Trevor Lawrence, the Lions with Jared Goff and the Cowboys with a healthy Dak Prescott and Dan Quinn running the defense.
We also just don’t know how the division will fluctuate: is this the year Matt Rhule’s Carolina revival takes flight? Will the Saints really regress that much without Drew Brees? Will the Bucs take a step back, as most Super Bowl winners do, at least somewhat?
There are so many unknown variables that it’s hard to exactly pinpoint just how “tough” this schedule is for the Falcons. If we’re going off 2020 results alone, they’re really in a nice spot. They’ll face a good bunch of teams that either didn’t perform to expectation last year or just struggled for reasons related to injury, poor coaching, or just lousy play. The hard part about that is, well, that’s where the Falcons were last year. The fact that the team has a veteran QB in Matt Ryan does give you hope, but the possibility of a Julio Jones trade and questions about a defensive resurgence gives you some pause as to what this team’s true ceiling is, at least for this year.
The trick with the strength of schedule is that you never complain with an easier slate while you never overlook how even challenging those “easy” games can be. There is no such thing as an “easy” slate of games in the NFL, and this season has an extra game added to it (because why not). The Falcons will have an uphill climb regardless, particularly if they trade Jones.
Maybe they’ll figure it out instantly. It’d be mopey to suggest this team can’t win this year because, if all breaks right, they could get back to the playoffs. You could honestly see this team at 4-1 going into the bye if they can take care of business against Philadelphia, the two New York teams and Washington. Judging by how those teams were in 2020 and where they are now, that might not be that hard a feat if the play calling really is that much better than it was last year and if the team can stay healthy. It’s hard to imagine the offense being much worse in the red zone, Dante Fowler not being at least more useful than he was a year ago, and some key members of the 2020 draft class not benefiting from a less hectic offseason.
In the end, feel good about what this schedule holds while all we can do is prognosticate. At least on paper, it’s just not nearly as foreboding as last year’s slate was. Just don’t underestimate how much things can change in a season.